The all-important hops might come from far up the coast in the great Pacific Northwest, but there is something truly enviable about the hop-forward, but slightly restrained IPAs produced in San Diego.
Up in Washington and Oregon where the hops hail from most often, the IPAs veer towards the explosion of hop- driven bitterness end of the spectrum. San Diego prefers their IPAs to be smoother and cleaner. Is it the surfer style of hanging loose that rubs off on the brewmasters? This must be that casual “West Coast IPA” style often referred to and never defined any differently than a regular IPA.
AleSmith started in 1995 by Peter Zien in a tiny storage garage in a nondescript commercial area just north of the Miramar Naval Base, near the middle of nowhere. It’s a beer abundant area as it turns out, with numerous tap rooms and microbreweries (Green Flash, Hess, Rough Draft) nearby. Since 1996, Tod Fitzsimmons has been the head brewer, leading the charge of one of the most important breweries of the past decade. A recent Friday night proved that the party was at AleSmith’s tap room, regardless of how out of the way it is.
It’s not easy to stand out in San Diego’s prominent craft beer scene. It’s no easier to stand out in the specific IPA genre here, amidst the world of Sculpin and West Coast IPA. Then again, the hands down most under the radar (still!), marquee craft brewery in San Diego County would be AleSmith. And its most impressive beer after an extensive tasting recently at its tap room would be the AleSmith IPA, quite possibly the finest of the highest tier of IPAs in Southern California. Yes, we’re looking at you Sculpin.The body is slightly tanner than the typical golden hue, promising the potential for more controlled bitterness towards a Brown Ale. That being said, the nose is unequivocally hops. Lots of them. Grapefruit and marjoram blend in for the vintage citrus and floral notes that round out the presentation.
The initial taste strikes the palate much like that hoppy aroma, telling you that this has the chance to be almost a Double IPA in IBU power. Yet, that’s when the Amber-malty notes arrive, with a distinctive salted caramel sweetness holding the hops in check. They appear throughout the experience with controlled restraint. Consider this a refined IPA blending the best of both worlds: dynamic wet hops at the start with a noticeable dry hop finish. There is a story arc to this IPA that so many IPAs aspire for and seldom get caught up in one very hoppy narrative.
Everything is exceedingly balanced in this consummate IPA, registering right in the average ABV area at 7.25%. You won’t need an immediate nap afterwards. You will want a second round of what soon could become, with all due respect to its many fine peers, San Diego’s flagship IPA.
Save that nap for after a session with the intense 12% ABV Speedway Stout that is really a Barleywine in a majestic Imperial Stout black body. Lots of charcoal and ristretto espresso notes take hold, complete with a very prominent maltiness that concludes with a very sharp finish. It’s a beer with ample punch and bite. It’s also a risk-taker, one that toes the line of being too distracted by many directions. For a real whirlwind sensations fest, there is the Vietnamese Speedway Stout brewed with Vietnamese coffee. Kaffir lime, vanilla, and sweet condensed milk catch your attention more than any extra addition of coffee beans. This Speedway Stout edition calms some of the frantic notes from the regular. Watch out. This one burns and captivates.
Unfortunately, that was the case with the wee bit too acidic Wee Heavy Scotch Ale. Too much of the 10% ABV came through and not enough of the dense caramel and malt that makes Scotch ales so pleasing. Wee Heavy had the prickly nature of the Speedway Stout without the riveting notes.
AleSmith’s flagship beer would be the very consistent Anvil ESB, closely followed by the delightful Nut Brown Ale that boasts much more malty character than the genre often possesses. The Extra Pale Ale veered towards the safer direction, a fine, refreshing ale with a very controlled amount of hops. For a brewery that goes more for the daring side, this one is certainly a straightforward curveball.
Belgian ales figure prominently with the Lil’ Devil (Pale Ale), Grand Cru (Dark Ale), and the Horny Devil (Strong Pale Ale). Old Numbskull is AleSmith’s highly regarded American Barleywine and their YuleSmith Holiday Ale has become one of the craft beer community’s favorite spiced seasonal offerings.
Strangely for a brewery that focuses on classic English and Belgian styles, the IPA stood out most. Then the IPA was closely followed by…the Robust Porter, a handsome, forceful edition that has all of the spunk of the Speedway Stout, with much more clarity. You know this a thorough brewery when the studs aren’t even supposed to be the golden ones.
Amidst the stalwart portfolio of beers, the IPA stands out at Alesmith. Let it be heard up and down the Pacific, this is an IPA very much worth knowing.